Short Book Review: Old Man’s War

If you were looking for the high concept of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, you could probably do worse than to call it Ender’s Game for the geriatric set. In the future, you can enlist in the offworld military when you hit 75, which many do as there’s a sort of legend that they’ll make you young again, and many of those who join have no reason left to stay on Earth (to which you can never return). It’s an interesting perspective for a war novel told through the perspective of the elderly, though I sometimes feel that some of the uniqueness of that voice is lost as the story progresses. Scalzi’s novel is neither an all out glamorization or condemnation of the military and war (though the author does acknowledge a particular debt to Robert Heinlein), portraying it as a necessary evil in a dangerous universe. There are apparently a pair of followups, which I look forward to checking out.

Shit. Yes.

According to Variety, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen Union (which I read a few months back) is being made into a movie by none other than the Coen brothers (whose latest movie, No Country for Old Men, was unquestionably one of the best movies of last year). The Coens are real filmmakers, and I look forward to seeing what they can do with this bizarre story—seems right up their alley.

Short Movie/Book Review: The Golden Compass

I saw this movie with Gen today; she liked it, and I thought it was a charming but definitive failure. I attribute this pretty much entirely to me having read the book. The book had some serious pacing issues (like not being able to foreshadow for more than like two pages in advance, except when the foreshadowed thing was damn obvious). The movie fixed some of these issues, then added some issues of its own (like trying to fit way too much action into the first half). Overall, I liked the book better just because some of the characters seemed more worth caring about, but I didn’t really find it any more or less interesting than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which I similarly read because I had nothing better to do before going to sleep. I’ll read the second book because I feel like Putnam’s religious commentary is just warming up, whereas Lewis’s was just kind of dull and obvious. One thing both the book and the movie had going for them, though: motherfucking fighting bears. At least they didn’t make that scene too much more tame in the movie.

An Awesome Fundraiser

Scrabble for Cheaters at 826nyc (a nonprofit that helps kids learn to write). I am otherwise occupied on January 19th, unfortunately, but if you are in the area and so inclined, play a bingo for me. (Hint: hold on to E, R, and S tiles.)

Write on

nano_07_winner_small.gifAnd so it is done. Tonight I met my goal of writing a novel in the month of November (where 1 novel = 50,000 words), and one whole day early to boot. This is the third consecutive year that I’ve managed to complete the contest, and it feels good. In some ways, however, this year was less satisfying, largely because of the story that I’ve been working on, which was not as close to me as the books I’ve worked on in years past. I decided to take a break from the science-fiction trilogy that I’ve been writing on and off for the past eight years and try something—in the words of Monty Python—completely different.

Was it a success? Not entirely: I had only the barest idea of plot and characters, and that clearly showed as I ended up writing myself in circles—sometimes literally (I started to get the feeling that my story resembled a scene from one of those classic comedy films where people are all running back and forth through the doors in a hallway). But my goal was to cleanse my palate and try to write something totally different, and in that sense, I feel much more energized about getting back to my other books.

Ironically, I looked back on my wrap-up posts from 2005 and 2006, and found that last year I wrote this:

I’m looking forward to finishing this story sometime in the next year, perhaps just in time to start with a wholly new idea for next year’s NaNoWriMo.

Well, I didn’t finish that story, but I did start something entirely new. Now I’m thinking that I’ve finally got a chance to finish what I started. Hopefully.

Read More…

Short Book Review: The Golden Compass

This book, the first of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (a reference to a line from Milton’s Paradise Lost, which was an inspiration for the series) is actually a re-read: this was one of three books I took with me to Scotland when I moved there in 2001 (the other two, if you’re interested, were The Fellowship of the Ring and Watchmen). When I first read it, almost seven years ago, the book fell flat for me—then again, I wonder how much of it had to do with my circumstances. The second time through I enjoyed it much more; in part, that’s circumstantial as well, as I’m currently involved in writing a young-adult sci-fi book, and Pullman’s work is so good it makes me all too cognizant of everything I’m doing poorly (especially his complex and nuanced portrayal of heroine Lyra). But of especial interest is the story’s relationship with religion and spirituality—two concepts which are curiously divorced and at odds in the book. The books will no doubt garner even more intention when the movie adaptation of the first volume opens next week; some religious figures have already called for boycotting the movie because of its story (here’s a story in the Boston Globe in defense of Pullman and the trilogy, but be aware there are spoilers for those, like me, who haven’t read the entire series).

Short Book Review: Gentlemen of the Road

It may seem like I’m on a Michael Chabon kick, reading this so soon after The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, but I knew nothing of this book until I saw it mentioned in Chabon’s Wikipedia entry. Gentlemen of the Road (which, according to Chabon’s afterword, he had originally intended to title Jews with Swords) is an adventure tale set in the Caucasus mountain region around 950 AD. It follows the unlikely pair of titular characters, who make their living as swindlers, bandits, and mercenaries: the pale, scarecrow-like Zelikman, a Frankish physician, and the giant African Jew and soldier, Amram, as they get wrapped up in the area’s political intrigue. Gentlemen of the Road was originally published in the New York Times as a serial, but it’s been collected in book form along with Chabon’s afterword, which deals with why he wrote the story and is potentially more fascinating than the story itself. Gentlemen is at the same time very unlike and yet highly reminiscent of Chabon’s other writings—despite its disparities of setting and tone, its similarities lie in the heavy influence of Jewish culture and the author’s more recent propensity for delving into genre fiction. But if I were forced to rank Chabon’s work—say, at gunpoint—I’d put this below Kavalier & Clay and Policemen’s Union, but above The Final Solution and Summerland.

Best Response to the “Gay Dumbledore” News

“Wow. I hadn’t heard that. I’ve been really busy lately not caring about the sexual preferences of fictional people.” –The Onion

Runner up: Dumbledore Pride t-shirts.

Short Book Review: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

A dumpling of a hard-boiled crime novel wrapped inside a shell of speculative fiction, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is unarguably Chabon’s best work since he won the Pulitzer for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay back in 2001. The nascent State of Israel collapsed in 1948 and the Jews were instead given safe haven and some degree of autonomy in the panhandle of Alaska, where they await the appearance of the Messiah and the return to the Holy Land—meanwhile, the shadow of the Sitka District’s imminent reversion to full US control and a return to diaspora looms. Our hero, Detective Meyer Landsman, is cut from the cloth of noir protagonists from time immemorial: alcoholic, divorced, a loose cannon who always has a snappy comeback. The murder of a junkie drags Landsman into apocalyptic religious/political intrigue whose impact reaches far beyond Sitka. Chabon is a master of prose and he’s done an admirable job of melding the hard-boiled crime tone with Yiddish slang and making it all seem of a piece, although I wonder what someone with less familiarity with Jewish culture and history would get out of it (and I know I missed plenty); in that, it reminds me of A Clockwork Orange, which I originally read in an edition without a glossary, wondering all along how anybody who didn’t know Russian could understand it.

Why We Write

This Neil Gaiman blog post, Why Write?, is a spot-on assessment of the best and worst of being a writer. I’ve been trying for the last several months to finish up the third and final book in a series that I’ve been working on for about eight years now, and I’m feel like I’m still taxiing around the runway, waiting to take off; I’ve rewritten (from scratch) the first chapter about four times now. One storyline has progressed fine—I have about seven or eight chapters of it written—but the other has been lacking something. In the moments where I worry that I’ll never get off the ground, I remember that I have been in the air before, so I do another loop around the airfield.

On a related note, there’s about two weeks until National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) commences. I’m planning on starting on a completely different project, something that’ll hopefully let me clear both my head and my palette. If you’ve ever thought you might want to write a novel, NaNoWriMo is the perfect opportunity to give it a go. This will be my third consecutive year participating and I’m hoping to go 3-for-3, though admittedly I’m a little worried, since this’ll be the first year I’ve tried to do it while working full time. And there’s still that ever elusive task of getting published.